I will reveal something completely useless to you for the purpose of this review: I was born on the 25th of December. Thatís right. Take your pick. Little Jesus, Santaís Son, Iíve heard Ďem all. I have the privilege to share my birthday with such illustrious people as Jimmy Buffett, Alice Cooper, Annie Lennox and Jesus Christ. Christmas in my family isnít really a tradition in the sense of the word. Sure, we love Christmas just as much as the other families, but we donít have dyed-in-the-wool traditions like roasting chestnuts or watching Itís A Wonderful Life, which is probably why I ended up viewing the latter in the middle of summer.
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George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has worked all his life to make his life a good one. He stopped the local druggist from giving out poison when he was eight. He saved his little brother from falling in a lake when he was eleven. He took over the family business at 18 when his father died. He passed over all his college money to his brother so that he could keep his job. He married his high school sweetheart (Donna Reed), had a bunch of kids and moved into an old broken down house. All of his life, however, something was looming over him, something that was better than him. His brother got all the academic benefits and all the respect form the town. Old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) has always been a step in front of him in business, and as a whole, life is pretty much treating him badly. On Christmas Eve, Georgeís uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) gives something to old Potter and absent-mindedly leaves 8000 dollars (in 40ís dollars, mind you) in it. Well, mean olí Potter keeps it. This sends George in a fury. He decides to do the ultimate sacrifice: commit suicide. He canít get the money, but if heís dead, no one will care, right? Well, as George is about to jump in the river, another person jumps in. George jumps in to save him. The man introduces himself as Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel sent to show George what the world would be like without him.
Those of you who havenít seen the film must be going ďAhh, what a stupid idea for a movie! It rips off the Scrooge story! And itís old. It must have, like, really bad acting.Ē
Those of you who have seen the movie are probably off in some fantasy land, remembering how great this movie is. When I began the movie, I was in the first group. I was cynical and expecting the worst. I have to say that I never really enjoyed old movies in the past. (That is, because I was too wrapped in Adam Sandler crap.) The first thing that struck me in Itís A Wonderful Life is that even thought this takes place in the 20ís to the 40ís, their plight and troubles are just as affecting as todayís. In fact, the movie only gets better and more touching with age.
Itís A Wonderful Life wasnít well received when it premiered. It failed at the box-office and generally was a big wet flop. The company disowned it and it floated around for a few years. This means that any television channel could air the movie for no fee, which is why it pops up on Christmas as sure as the groundhog will pop out on the 2nd of February. This at a time fares well for the movies who donít do great business but should (A.I. in the U.S. didnít make much, considering itís a Spielberg movie) but also fares badly for movies that bite the dust hard (Cutthroat Island). There supposedly is a color version out there, too, but Iíve never see it. (Word is itís pretty bad.)
The acting is uniformly good. This was Jimmy Stewartís first role after coming back from WWII. Everyone knows that Stewart brings something to a role that cannot be imitated. Whether he is playing an all-around good guy or a more layered, more interesting character (as in the movies he made with Hitchcock), he gives a performance that radiates originality while still remaining Stewart at the heart. I think the actor that resembles him the most nowadays is Tom Hanks. Anyway, Iím getting off track. Stewart gives a wonderful performance as a man who thinks heís had enough, but doesnít really. I love the character and his inability to get truly mad. Iíve heard many, many people complaining about how old-time actors pale in comparison to todayís Edward Nortons and Angelina Jolies. Personally, I think that the actors havenít changed (well, they have, but you know what I mean) but the people have. Everyone is expecting nervous, broken-down performances of mental illness and alienation. Is there no more place for the normal guy without any problems (unlike Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys)? Uh, anyway. Donna Reed plays Georgeís wife. Now, I have no idea what else Donna Reed has done in her career (fine, call me ignorant) but her work here is very solid. The angel, Clarence, is played by Henry Travers, whom I seem to recall seeing somewhere else. (A search has revealed it was in The Yearling.) He makes the character memorable and funny, something that Robert Carradine couldnít (and really shouldnít, come to think about it) achieve in the 1990 spin-off. The last character I feel I should discuss briefly is the one of Potter. Potter is one of those characters that you come to hate so much that you scream at the screen. You feel the hatred yourself. He has everything of the typical villain, and is vastly underrated when a list of the best villains comes around. He is very well played by Lionel Barrymore (who has some kind of link with Drew Barrymore, heís her great-grandfather, I think).
One might argue that Itís A Wonderful Life is conventional, sappy storytelling like so many other post WWII films. After all, itís just a backwards Christmas Carol, isnít it? It may be, but when a movie is this well made, this well acted and accepted as a Christmas tradition, you know that itís a classic.